A facemask, pencil and notebook
(CTNewsJunkie File Photo)

Members of the public and state agency commissioners offered no easy answers to a panel of lawmakers during a Tuesday hearing on the future of Connecticut’s school mask mandate just days before a scheduled vote. 

Delegates of all four legislative caucuses heard public and official testimony during a time-limited and remote informational hearing. The event came a day after Gov. Ned Lamont announced he hoped to let authority of the masking requirement fall to local school districts at the end of the month. But the decision rests with the legislature where lawmakers in the House plan to vote Thursday on all of Lamont’s ongoing pandemic orders.

Tuesday’s hearing represented a pandemic first in two ways. It was the first time a panel of lawmakers had an opportunity to publicly quiz the Lamont administration officials who have largely shaped Connecticut’s pandemic policies under emergency declarations since March of 2020. It was also the first chance members of the public have had to weigh in before the legislature. Many were upset about the ongoing school mask requirement.

“Shame on you for not even mentioning natural immunity and how it helps our cause,” resident Erica Garvey said in comments directed at Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani. 

“Yesterday’s announcement shifted control to localities, not parents and we will not stop until parents — not the government, not the board of eds — have control over our childrens’ health and wellbeing,” she said later. 

Chastising public officials was not limited to one side of the argument. 

“Protect people from other people or just give it up already,” Tina Manus told lawmakers. “If masks are eliminated from schools you are making students assassins in their own communities and families. Have the political will to do the right thing and err on the side of caution.”

Lawmakers also heard divergent testimony from teachers, whose classrooms have been subject to the masking order. Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said a recent survey of the union’s members found that around 55% favored a continued mask requirement while 40% were ready to see it expire. If optional, 62% of teachers surveyed planned to continue wearing masks, Dias said.

Jan Hochadel, president of AFT Connecticut, said she preferred to see the mandate remain in place until the weather warmed up. If optional, Hochadel said teacher choices needed to be respected.

“As a cancer survivor, I feel more comfortable in many public spaces wearing a mask,” Hochadel said. “Many educators are similarly compromised or live with loved ones who are.”

Other teachers worried about the impact of masking on the development of children. Tiffany Macauley, a teacher and parent, told lawmakers the requirement had impacted the development of students’ speech, communication and reading.

“At this point, I think we have to ask, ‘Are we doing more harm than good for children and their future?’” Macaulay said. “Two years later, we have a great deal more information and I believe it is time to adjust to life with COVID.”

Meanwhile, there was little consensus among lawmakers on the bipartisan panel, who, as of Tuesday morning, did not have specific language for the masking policy they would be voting on in the House on Thursday and in the Senate next Monday. 

House Speaker Matt Ritter said this week he expected the policy would allow the commissioner of education in consultation with the public health commissioner to make the decision. If they, as Lamont has suggested, lift the statewide mask requirement at the end of the month, local boards would be free to institute their own requirements.

During Tuesday’s hearing, legislators from both parties tried to get Lamont administration officials to describe what metrics they might use to decide when or if another mask requirement might be necessary. As they have in the past, officials said the decision would hinge largely on the situation in Connecticut hospitals, but they declined to offer specific metrics. 

“We would all like one metric to say, ‘once we reach there, that’s it we’re done and we can celebrate,’” Juthani said. “But it’s unfortunate, the virus has taught us that that’s not the case. So unfortunately I cannot give you one metric. I am telling you hospitalizations are going to be the number one thing we follow over time.”

The hearing was ongoing early Tuesday afternoon. With 369 residents signed up to speak, lawmakers planned to continue hearing testimony until 3 p.m.